The magical roots of feminism on film

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Aug 18, 2018, 8:57 PM EDT (Updated)

Utter the word “witch” and you might conjure up comical images of crooked-nose hags plagued by warts, creating deadly concoctions over their cauldrons. Or perhaps the word “witch” contains another definition: a sparkling wand and a pliant, nurturing nature, a mother-figure with just a touch of magic.

Over the years society has given us more than a few versions of the witch to choose from — the rebel, the bitch, the sexually deviant, the old woman, the innocent youth — but in 2018, the witch took on a new label. She became the symbol of a worldwide resistance, and she did it with a bit of help from pop culture.

The witch has always been synonymous with feminism, even before the term was even coined. Long before Twitter trolls were issuing death threats over DMs, misogynists were using the word “witch” to hunt, torture, and kill women for being “other.” An unhealthy amount of superstition mixed with a fear of women gaining bodily-autonomy and a sense of self-worth created the first image of the “witch.” She was a woman who couldn’t be controlled, who defied explanation, who rebelled, experimented, and who wouldn’t conform. Hell, she might’ve cast spells, but that offense was less-concerning than her contrary nature.

Eventually, people stopped burning women, but the witch survived and reappeared during the suffragette movement, when an author and abolitionist known as Matilda Joslyn Gage correctly labeled the witch hunts of the past for what they were, an attempt by society to police women — their sexuality, their reproductive rights, and their bodies. Fast forward another hundred or so years, and pop culture decided to revive the caricature of the witch, this time on film.

The Wizard of Oz was probably the first look many of us had at witches on the big screen. The MGM classic defined how we viewed the concept by giving us two very different interpretations. She could be wicked, with green skin (read: ugly and difficult) or she could be blonde, gracious, soft-spoken and good-hearted (i.e., the “preferred” woman). As dogmatic as these two forms of the witch were, they at least presented the duality of women. We all know by now that, like men, women can be both good and bad, light and dark. They’re complicated, layered individuals. It took film a while to catch up to that fact, and even longer for Hollywood to start giving the “witch” her due.

I grew up watching witches on the big and small screen. When I was young, reruns of the classic TV sitcom Bewitched were my regular diet. Sure, Samantha Stephens was all things a “good” witch, and a “preferred” woman should be. She was blonde, funny, likable, and a housewife, but she had an ace up her sleeve, a way to quietly rebel against her husband Darren, who was, let’s be honest, a bit of an assh*le. Magic was Samantha’s own form of resistance, something her husband couldn’t control, a physical entity that represented her intangible struggle. At the time, I just appreciated that she could wiggle her nose and dirty dishes would disappear — my own mother couldn’t do that after all — but even that trick was a bit of feminism at work. Housework, or “women’s work” just wasn’t a concern for a witch, and so, 10-year-old me was sold.

With the '90s and early aughts, the idea of witches morphed from the lazy glamour of the '60s and '70s to something a bit darker, more dangerous and, perhaps, a bit more real. The Craft imagined the witch as a teenage girl, a frightening enough character the film would have us believe, but one made more menacing with magic at her fingertips. Though in hindsight that movie was more than a bit problematic for how it portrayed women, it didn’t get it all wrong. The girls of The Craft were outsiders; they dressed and behaved in a way that set them apart from their peers. Some came from troubled homes or battled inner demons and they used witchcraft to fight back against the stereotypes that plagued them at school, racist bullies and abusive parents. The film’s watered-down message was that witchcraft allowed them to take control of their lives, but eventually, it gave them too much power, making them dangerous. It’s an apt metaphor for the struggle of women, one that still feels relevant today.

Of course, there are other representations of witches on screen. Horror flicks like The Witch do a bang-up job of representing 18th-century Puritan beliefs about witchcraft and how a woman’s worth is wrapped up in disturbing beliefs about sexuality. Practical Magic, a '90s film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, showed the witch as other but also built on the bonds of sisterhood that are created when women stand up for themselves and each other, as did Witches of Eastwick, a film that imagined three women sharing the same man before casting a spell to rid themselves of his overbearing influence. Episodes of popular TV shows like The Simpsons and Broad City have also imagined modern witchcraft, the idea of coven life and female empowerment and casting spells against carrot-colored tyrants.

Today, film and TV still see the witch as other, but we’re taught that might be a good thing — or at least something to galvanize the rest of us, to get us into the fight. The witch, with her intuitive powers, her uncontrollable nature, and her lack of desire to conform, seems the perfect symbol to build a resistance behind. She threatens the ego and the fragility of a misogynist patriarchy and challenges prescribed molds of womanhood. She’s on T-shirts and protest signs. She’s been meme-d and gif-ed all over social media. She’s finally becoming intersectional, with shows like the CW’s upcoming Charmed reboot giving us witches of color at a time when the oppression of minorities feels particularly frightening.

And as we continue to claim magical lineage as marching chants, to boldly accept the label “witch” and turn it from a misogynistic slur into a rallying cry, it’s important to remember how TV, film, books, and pop culture at large have defined and redefined our idea of what a witch is so that, five or ten years down the line, when that definition changes yet again, we don’t forget the spirit and the meaning behind the symbol.

For now, though, when it comes to film and TV, we’re in the season of the witch. Let’s enjoy it.

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